Chinese Seek Answers In Student Quake Deaths

A woman mourns her dead child at the ruins of a middle school in China's Sichuan province i i

Nearly a year after a massive earthquake devastated southwestern China, the government has yet to release the death toll of children killed in collapsing schools. Here, a woman mourns her dead child at the ruins of a middle school in Beichuan county in China's Sichuan province on Jan. 25. China Photos/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption China Photos/Getty Images
A woman mourns her dead child at the ruins of a middle school in China's Sichuan province

Nearly a year after a massive earthquake devastated southwestern China, the government has yet to release the death toll of children killed in collapsing schools. Here, a woman mourns her dead child at the ruins of a middle school in Beichuan county in China's Sichuan province on Jan. 25.

China Photos/Getty Images
Beijing artist and activist Ai Weiwei i i

Beijing artist and activist Ai Weiwei is on a mission to document the schoolchildren killed in the earthquake. He began his investigation in December 2008 by calling about 200 government offices and asking how many schoolchildren were killed. He says officials never gave him a number. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Ai Weiwei
Beijing artist and activist Ai Weiwei

Beijing artist and activist Ai Weiwei is on a mission to document the schoolchildren killed in the earthquake. He began his investigation in December 2008 by calling about 200 government offices and asking how many schoolchildren were killed. He says officials never gave him a number.

Courtesy of Ai Weiwei

Nearly a year after a massive earthquake left more than 80,000 people dead or missing in southwestern China, the government still has not released figures for the number of children killed in collapsed schools.

Some children's parents allege that shoddy school construction was to blame, making the issue a politically sensitive one. Chinese activists continue to investigate the deaths, despite the efforts of authorities to block them.

The artworks scattered around the courtyard of Ai Weiwei's studio in suburban Beijing are a mix of classical Chinese and rebellious avant-garde. The son of a famous poet, Ai is on a personal mission: documenting the schoolchildren killed in the earthquake.

Police Detain Activists

He says that the task is getting harder, and that police in Sichuan province have detained several of his volunteers.

"The police confiscate your materials and give no receipt. They send you back to Chengdu by car, and tell you, 'Don't let us see you again. You have broken the law.' When the volunteers ask what law, the police say: 'You'll find out,' " he says.

Others have been less fortunate. Sichuanese environmental activist Tan Zuoren, who conducted a similar investigation, was arrested on March 28 on suspicion of incitement to subversion.

In Ai's office, spreadsheets on the wall display the names, ages and schools of more than 5,000 children killed by collapsing schoolrooms. The lists were censored last month from Ai's blog (in Chinese).

Difficult To Get Answers

Ai began his investigation in December by calling about 200 government offices and asking how many schoolchildren were killed.

He says he got three standard answers.

"First, 'This is a state secret, and we can't possibly give it to you.' Second, 'You are an individual, what do you want this information for anyway?' Third, 'You are hurting the parents' feelings. They're suffering and don't want to discuss the issue,' " he says.

Ai says he will continue calling his government to account until he gets a satisfactory answer.

"Our political system has always covered up the truth and failed to take responsibility. It conceals all problems related to the political system. So this kind of calamity will continue to occur in future," he says.

Government Pledge To Release Names

China's government has pledged to release the names of all earthquake victims as part of its first national human rights action plan, announced last month. Sichuan's vice governor, Wei Hong, said in March that while the government was still working on the final tally, it had already reached a conclusion about why so many schoolrooms collapsed.

"The earthquake was of a great magnitude and intensity," he said. "This was the most important reason for the damage that our schools and other facilities sustained."

Some citizens, though, have found otherwise.

Probe Goes On

Chengdu resident Wang Xiaodong investigated the collapse of the middle school in Beichuan county that killed hundreds of students. Wang says he has dreamed he saw the souls of the dead children, and he remains haunted to this day.

He alleges that the school's construction boss sold off some of the steel that should have been reinforcing the school's concrete. Wang obtained copies of the school's blueprints, which he says prove his point, and mailed them to anti-corruption officials in Beijing.

Speaking by phone from southern Guangdong province, Wang says he is not afraid of retribution from local officials.

"If I could trade my life to bring back one of the dead students, I would not hesitate. Officials' threats and dirty tricks are useless against me. Because if this issue is not resolved, life would be too painful anyway," he says.

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